Why We Drink

The anthropological roots of humanity's love of booze


My superpower is that I don't get hangovers. Not because I don't drink: I've been falling-down drunk on multiple occasions. But I'm always fine the next morning, much to the chagrin of my groaning companions fumbling for the Alka-Seltzer. I don't know why this is. I've always attributed it to some sort of Northern European genetic gift—like I've been built to survive in frigid atmospheres, hiking through snow with a baby on each hip, swigging from a flask of aquavit.

Not everyone is well-adapted to drinking alcohol. Some quickly become nauseated, get flushed, and generally find drinking very uncomfortable. As Edward Slingerland suggests in Drunk, you might expect that to be adaptively useful, from an evolutionary standpoint. Those who don't drink may be more productive members of society: They are more likely to show up to work on time, less likely to get into pointless fights or fall into ditches. You might expect a nondrinking tribe to have overtaken its alcohol-buzzed neighbors with its industriousness and civil harmony. By this logic, a biological imperative to avoid drink would have spread and become dominant.

But this has not happened. Evolution has spoken, and teetotalling has not overtaken the world. The alcohol-tolerant among us are hardly a dwindling group, its disadvantages notwithstanding. So Drunk sets out to answer the question of why we drink. Not just the cultural and social explanations, but why we keep doing it despite its destructiveness.

Most cultures are drinking cultures, and those who historically didn't make alcohol have used some other intoxicant, such as opium or marijuana. Human beings are better able than most other mammals to tolerate booze, allowing us to eat overripe fruit that has started fermenting—just as we are better able to benefit from other intoxicants. Many of the chemicals we take as recreational drugs are plant toxins, intended to ward off herbivores from eating that plant. But they hit the pleasure receptors in our brains (even if some, such as ayahuasca, also come with unpleasant side effects). We seem to have an unerring ability to find these substances too: "Among traditional societies," Slingerland writes, "if there is something in the biome that has psychoactive properties, you can be sure that the locals have been using it for millennia." The desire to get comfortably numb leads us to overlook all kinds of tedious production processes and other costs, such as bouts of vomiting.

Our longstanding taste for alcohol and other intoxicants shows that from the earliest days that humans were aware of reality, we've been seeking means to get away from it. And these escapes have had different social meanings: from the spiritual use of particular drugs to the everyday numbing of pain or boredom with alcohol (or cannabis, or whatever is available).

Brewing, one of our most widespread sources of intoxication, has long been considered to be a byproduct of settled agriculture: We had excess grain, so we turned it into beer. Slingerland considers the possibility that that's backward: that brewing was the original intention and bread the byproduct. Growing archaeological evidence supports this thesis, which in turn suggests that "the first large gatherings of people, centered on feasting, ritual, and booze, happened long before anyone had come up with the idea of planting and harvesting crops." One possible reason for this, Slingerland adds, is that intoxication can solve a lot of problems in a complex society, such as the issue of getting strangers to cooperate.

Alcohol is a social lubricant. We let our guards down when drunk, and this isn't always a bad thing. Many of us have experienced the shortcut to friendship that comes with having a few drinks with someone. Likewise, drinking is such an expected part of certain social interactions that the nondrinker can seem standoffish and unfriendly. In European cultures, drinking from a common cup (a "loving cup") became a part of ritualized bonding. Not just drinking at the same time, but imbibing from the same vessel, was a sign of unity. The chief example of this, of course, is the communion chalice. Sharing a drink brought us together.

Building community over a glass comes with a price, however.

Human ingenuity took our natural ability to consume some alcohol, which worked well for centuries with wine and beer, and turned it up to 11 with the development of distilling. Slingerland argues that our ancestral bodies were not ready for 90 proof substances, and that drinking cultures centered around hard liquor (as opposed to the Mediterranean style of wine with a meal) are the destructive ones. He describes this difference as "Southern" (wine or beer, with food) vs. "Northern" (vodka, whenever). The "problem" is not the wine glass but the shot glass.

This view was shared by William Hogarth, whose famous 1751 illustrations of "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street" showed the supposed social chaos caused by gin, as opposed to the harmony and peace of the beer-drinking district. Hogarth was responding to the change in drinking culture when Londoners started hitting the hard stuff in the "gin craze" of the 18th century. Under the new king, William of Orange, the government had lifted restrictions on distilling, making gin more widely available and cheap. This in turn inspired the first "intoxicant panic," as the government backtracked and started imposing more regulations.

Aside from the negative effects on our liver and long-term health outcomes, alcohol can offer more immediate risks. Liquor is often to blame when a young man's last words are "Hey, watch this!" As much as a pub crawl might fuel friendships, it can also damage relationships. Insults (and punches) thrown under the influence can be a source of lasting regret.

And booze has shaped our social interactions in other ways. Most drinking cultures are also masculine cultures; historically, pubs and taverns were not women's spaces. Drink is the language of men in the public sphere, men in battle, men at the negotiating table. Drinking brings bravado as well as bonding. There are some physiological reasons for this: Men tend to be larger than women and thus are often able to metabolize alcohol more quickly. They can drink more and survive. But we can see lingering differences beyond this. When the price of vodka plummeted in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slingerland points out, life expectancy for men fell a full six years—a difference scientists have attributed largely to the suddenly cheaper booze.

Consider the opinions offered by various national health bodies on how much it is safe for each sex to drink. In the different countries in which I've lived, the advised amount for me to drink has been set at wildly different levels, reflecting those societies' variously prohibitive attitudes toward drinking, and particularly toward women drinking. In the U.S., I am supposed to stay below 98 grams of alcohol per week. But in Spain it's OK for me to drink up to 170 grams. (I, and my drinks cabinet, metaphorically reside in Madrid.)

To answer the question of why we drink, Slingerland surveys widely, from game theory to studies on alcohol in animals. I'm not convinced that corvids' problem-solving abilities have much to do with my preference for a chilled glass of Viognier. But he makes a strong case for alcohol's centrality for cultural development.

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, by Edward Slingerland, Little, Brown Spark, 384 pages, $29